Fact, Fiction, Avis Tertia

July 17, 2022   •   By Josefina Massot

In Search of the Third Bird: Exemplary Essays from The Proceedings of ESTAR(SER), 2001–2021

D. Graham Burnett, Catherine L. Hansen, and Justin E. H. Smith

IN HIS SEMINAL Paratexts (1987), Gérard Genette quotes fellow structuralist Michel Charles on the function of the epigraph: it should “give food for thought, without one’s knowing what the thought is.” Its significance, he adds, “will not be clear or confirmed until the whole book is read, and it will often depend on the reader's “hermeneutic capacity. This should resonate with those who pore over the pages of In Search of the Third Bird: Exemplary Essays from The Proceedings of ESTAR(SER), 2001–2021 — a tome rife with paratextual play.

According to the cover blurb, it’s a collection of essays on the history of the Avis Tertia, an “ecstatic” order of “sensual misfits and cabalistic aesthetes” who have gathered in secret for centuries to practice attentional protocols. The book’s first two epigraphs immediately echo these notions. Critic Walter Pater references attention (“Is it worthwhile, can we afford, to attend to just that, to just that…?”), while philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer alludes to ecstasy qua mystic self-transcendence (“To recognize one’s own in the alien, to become at home in it, is the basic movement of spirit…”). The third epigraph, attributed to the 17th-century philologist and historian Du Cange, is the more cryptic “Orbis terrarum est speculum Ludi”; those of us curious enough to conduct a quick online search will learn that it appears in Borges’s “The Sect of the Phoenix” (1952), whose titular secret society readily evokes the Order of the Third Bird. Tickled, if not yet sated, by these semantic hors d’oeuvres, we’ll eagerly read on.

The Avis Tertia takes its name from an Ausonian twist on a Plinian tale: a Greek virtuoso by the name of Zeuxis paints a child holding a bunch of grapes; as he stands back to ponder his work, a flock of birds makes for the fictive fruit. In a shining display of self-loathing rigor — the kind that often haunts the gifted — Zeuxis bemoans his failure: sure, the grapes are lifelike enough to tempt the winged beasts, but his child is not lifelike enough to scare them off. So ends Pliny’s account. In its coda (likely tied to Ausonius by error), Zeuxis repaints the child, and three birds approach the new version: one makes for the grapes but spots the child and flies away; the second ignores him and fruitlessly pecks at the canvas. But the third bird stands by and looks at the painting, transfixed.

Since the late 18th century, members of the eponymous Order have gathered around the world in scattered cells or volées to practice attention to objectstypically, neglected works of art. Their standard practice has four phases, all conducted in strict silence. “Encounter” can be thought of as the “zero phase,” in which Order members (“Birds” for short) enter the space of the work du jour and prepare to observe it. In the second phase, “Attending,” they step forward and face the work, aiming to affirm it for what it is. Then, during “Negation,” they take a step back in order to “unsee” it: what if it isn’t? Finally, in “Realizing,” they again step forward and “complete the work” by pondering its possibilities: what shall it be? Throughout this practice, Birds avoid assessing the work’s value, interpreting its meaning, or bringing prior learning to bear on the experience. They also strive to be generous, “allowing the work to be everything” — which of course, includes them as observers, sometimes making for an astounding denouement: a psychic fusion between the subject and object of attention (this so-called metempsychosis should be kept short and sweet, they warn, lest one lose oneself in it for good). Assuming the Birds manage to flee the experience unscathed, they withdraw to jot down their impressions. Shortly afterward, they share them in much rowdier “Colloquy.”

That’s as far as the sharing goes, though. These folks, recall, are members of a secret order; they tread lightly on the dust of history, rarely leaving a clear print. When they do, they camouflage themselves as birders and join the search only to tamper with the evidence. One wonders how anything could possibly be said about such knavish creatures, let alone enough to yield a vast taxonomy. That is, however, exactly what we get in this book.

A polymath in 19th-century Kentucky, we read, applied to the study of fossils a Birdish protocol with a Hegelian bent, later impacting a bright-eyed student’s take on Darwinian evolution. In Russia, a gulag prisoner’s fresh reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) served to justify his practice of attention to objects of nature rather than art. Influenced by I. A. Richards’s Practical Criticism (1929), a disciple at Cambridge stole the object of an evening’s gathering and wreaked havoc after bringing it to Colloquy for close analysis.

If Birdish practice has been shaped by classic works, it has also left its mark on others. An Istanbul volée’s eccentric protocols, centered on the recreation of absent objects, inspired aspects of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946). Julio Cortázar’s 1956 story “Axolotl” (whose narrator is so taken with the titular amphibian that he ends up turning into it) was one of several Argentine tales on the dangers of Birdish metempsychosis. Margaret Preston’s “hypnotic flower images,” on the other hand, stemmed from her dealings with a Parisian volée inspired by the Japanese practice of ikebana that actively sought metempsychotic ecstasy. William James’s ideas on attention were entangled with a Bird’s who went rogue as a magician after falling from academic grace. An English Bird’s attempts to instruct the Parisian Surrealists had an impact on André Breton. Jasper Johns’s Birdish practice in Manhattan fueled his view of ordinary objects as bona fide works of art.

One could go on, but the gist is clear: “Across history, geography, and culture, associates of the Order have engaged in a very wide variety of attentional practices.” Such practices are gripping in their own right, well worth the hundreds of pages devoted to them, and they provide valuable templates for those who might wish to refine their own habits of attention. But what makes In Search of the Third Bird a remarkable specimen isn’t ultimately what is said — it’s who says it, and how.

Both issues are broached (and apparently settled) in the volume’s introduction: these are exemplary essays, we’re told, from members of ESTAR(SER), a serious research collective that studies the Birds but has little to do with them otherwise. Sure, its members may have once hatched from Birdish ranks, and may since have had to pluck one or two Birdish double agents from their own. Now, however, they constitute a separate body with a radically distinct MO. Associates of the Order pursue sensuous, irrational fusion with their subjects; they’re “attention artists,” after all. ESTAR(SER) members, par contre, are historians: logical, meticulous, enlightened. So the editors tell us, over and over, in the first few pages. By the end of this beginning, two things seem clear: ESTAR(SER)ians aren’t Birds, and history isn’t art.

At a glance, the book’s style and structure support these affirmations, abiding as they do by “the traditional canons of Wissenschaft.” The essays have been carefully handpicked by three noted academics (themselves members of ESTAR[SER]) from the collective’s Proceedings, an established journal on the history of the Avis Tertia; they have been further tweaked to remove any hint of Birdish contamination, thus ensuring “the highest standards of precision and rectitude.” Their authors have mostly relied on evidence extracted from the W-Cache, a codified repository of vetted Birdish materials, around which they’ve then built highly detailed arguments. In the early essays, when a colleague’s work is found critically wanting, it is dutifully singled out: so-and-so’s reasoning on such-and-such a topic is overly “speculative,” an author might claim; someone’s use of puns in lieu of logic makes someone else’s metaphoric glut “look like positive science.” These digs are more than just college humor; they serve as further proof that ESTAR(SER)’s scholarly output is subject to communal scrutiny — which, of course, only ups its credibility. Such formal safeguards come wrapped in the paratextual staples of academic writing: we’re treated to clearly defined thematic sections; editorial preludes; copious footnotes; a comprehensive bibliography, index, and contributors section; source plates and photographs, etc. It really does seem like what the essays “attest” can be “known for a fact.”

But these early assurances are soon brought into question. In Gregg C. Toomey’s “ESTAR(SER) and the W-Cache,” we learn that the collective’s origins and methods are anything but standard. ESTAR(SER) began with the early-20th-century fusion of two late-19th-century groups, namely the Esthetical Society for Transcendental and Applied Realization and the Society of Esthetic Realizers. The latter’s early pursuits, however, appear to have been “excessive and wasteful” rather than scholarly, and after a fragile five-year marriage, ESTAR and SER went their separate ways. Despite a few sporadic stabs at amiability, they didn’t fully reconcile until the early 21st century. In the meantime, their turbulent union spawned a very patchy series of Proceedings. In his essay on the journal’s history, Kyrre Mirador speaks of three successful runs punctuated by long periods of dispersal, darkness, and disestablishment. Of these charmingly alliterative eras, the first two were marked by scattered bibliographic oddities — pieces on the Order camouflaged as straight ornithology, say — and the third saw the theft of whole runs of the Proceedings from academic catalogs.

The W-Cache is an even stranger thing. Its origins are downright fantastical: it was purportedly delivered to one “Hogfoot” Milcom by an ice truck driver in nun’s clothing back during the Summer of Love. Its current whereabouts are blurry (allegedly kept secret to avoid Birdish mischief), and so is its nature. While some claim it occupies a couple thousand cubic feet, teeming with mildew and microbes, others “veer towards conceptual abstraction” in the form of myth or math: the Cache is a ravenous beast that devours and metabolizes its contents, they’ll say, or else a logical relation coextensive with the Order. At the end of the day, “the true nature of the W-Cache will never definitively be pinned down, but will continue to work […] as a productive mystery.”

It isn’t the only mystery in play: for one thing, who is this “Hogfoot” fellow? In many ways, he is ESTAR(SER)’s messiah — the man who singlehandedly refloated the Proceedings in the 1960s and later (via one or two disciples) paved the way for a millennial hat trick: a lasting third series, a centralized cache, and a unified collective. And yet, for all his influence, little is known about him. Many ESTAR(SER)ians, including several of the volume’s contributors, are equally elusive. The section devoted to them provides concrete information of a kind that should pop up in even basic online searches, but readers who conduct these will face puzzling results. It makes a certain amount of sense; according to Toomey, ESTAR(SER) members tend to hide their pursuits from the outside world. But that, of course, creates a different problem: it’s a suspiciously Birdish attitude. Adding to our scruples is the book’s Borgesian bibliography. Many of the cited works and authors, we discover, are just as hard to come by as the collective’s content, cache, and contributors.

So is, increasingly, the rigor these scholars initially swore by. What was decried as speculation in earlier essays plays an ever-growing role in later ones. Their authors still operate under the superficial codes of academic writing, but they also subvert them. Sources are liberally interpreted to fit Birdish themes or protocols, while gaps in the record are bridged through brazen acts of invention. The authors not only adopt these anti-scholarly practices but also preach them. Thus, for instance, in “Madame Banksia,” the Preston Working Group declares that a historian’s “creative energies” should “spark” across the “synapses” of history. In “The Vater Legacy,” Angar Bleibtrau agrees: “It is only by exercise of the imagination,” he says, “leaping from one leaning and broken pillar to another in the ruin of documentary testimony from the past, that we are able to gain any real access to the world of these disruptive incendiaries [i.e., the Birds].” Many such statements are peppered throughout the book.

By the time we’re done with the bulk of it, we’re forced to admit that ESTAR(SER)ians aren’t all that different from Birds, nor their doings from art. It looks like they’ve been playing fast and loose with the meaning of historicism. Certainly, their mental gymnastics read like play — the free play, one might say, of artistic imagination and historical understanding. Have they played us, then? Absolutely, and to great effect.

Their game is summed up in “Remains,” the book’s far from residual last section. The editors channel poet Susan Howe in claiming that, when it comes to history, the agon between archival authority and poetic (i.e., imaginative) authoring can be “sublimed” into an integrated whole — which is, of course, exactly what they’ve done. This bold approach was once the norm; for centuries, poets and historians borrowed from each other’s means and matter. Post-Enlightenment academic historiography, however, has been seized by what Hayden White calls the “ironic condition,” an epistemic approach marked by scientification and skepticism.

ESTAR(SER)’s project can be read as a reaction to this state of affairs. In one of the book’s introductory footnotes, amid promises of scholarly rigor, the editors sneak in a parallel between their work and White’s Metahistory (1973). White writes that his book is consciously “cast in an ironic mode,” meant to “[turn] the ironic consciousness against […] itself” and “[establish] that the skepticism […] [of] contemporary historical thinking […] is merely one of a number of possible postures that one may assume before the historical record.” This, he hopes, will clear the way “for the reconstitution of history as a form of intellectual activity which is at once poetic, scientific, and philosophical.” Like Metahistory, In Search of the Third Bird is written in the ironic mode: it bears all the trappings of skeptical historiography. Its contents, however, turn out to be largely speculative. Through the fine dialectical play between these mindsets, ESTAR(SER)ians show us that skepticism is but one approach to the historical record, making a winning case for history as a hybrid enterprise.

Moreover, in doing so, they walk us through our very own Birdish protocol. After all, we begin by attending to their book as a standard history; we then negate it as such, and veer toward a view of it as something like poetry; finally, we come to understand that there need not be any tension between these poles, and realize the book as a poetic history of sorts. Our reading becomes an exercise in “practical aesthesis,” and In Search of the Third Bird a riveting aesthetic object in its own right.

Having thus honed our attentional skills, we may return to those opening epigraphs and take a second bite at the proverbial apple. If so, we may discover that the works from which they have been pulled — Pater’s On Style (1889), Gadamer’s Truth and Method (1960), Borges’s Ficciones (1956) — are all of the Whitean persuasion. “[M]oving full of poignant sensibility amid the records of the past,” writes Pater, “each, after his own sense, modifies [them], […] passing into the domain of art proper.” According to Gadamer, “[in] the experiences of philosophy, of art, and of history itself […] a truth is communicated that cannot be verified by the methodological means proper to science.” Meanwhile, Du Cange’s adage in “The Sect of the Phoenix” can be rendered as “the world is mirror to the game,” which we may now take to mean that reality (or, more humbly, our account of it) is at least partly a reflection of the free play of our mental faculties. But there’s more to digest: “The Sect of the Phoenix” appears in Ficciones alongside the iconic “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which also features a sect, whose members literally make the world mirror their game. Their game is Orbis Tertius (a near-homophone, note, of Avis Tertia); simply put, it’s an account of an imaginary people that seeps into reality and ends up yielding a “third world” between fact and fiction.

At this point, no doubt, a kindred sect will come to mind — a cult of “sensual misfits and cabalistic aesthetes” who “wade the muddy marshes at the limits of historicism.” Its name, of course, is ESTAR(SER).


Josefina Massot is a freelance writer, editor, and translator from Buenos Aires, Argentina. She studied philosophy at Stanford University and creative writing at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.